Parallel universes are a common trope in science fiction, and for good reason. The idea of a double — another you, but different — is rife with storytelling possibilities, but there are also tons of logistical plot holes and complications to be found if you think about the idea too much (see: Star Trek: Discovery’s Mirror Universe). Counterpart, a new drama premiering on Starz, bypasses these problems by having a unique premise and then largely ignoring the sci-fi elements in favor of being a really good espionage drama.
During a press event in September, Counterpart showrunner told Inverse the series is a riff on a Cold War-style spy series, only “instead of a Berlin Wall, it’s a metaphysical wall.” It’s a great elevator pitch for the first great series of 2018.
Howard Silk, played by J.K. Simmons, is a longtime, fairly low-level company man working at secretive United Nations bureaucracy in Berlin. His wife is in a coma, and he’s generally a sad sack. Everything changes for him when the higher-ups bring him in and let them know what they’ve really been doing this whole time. See, 30 years ago, something happened that created a parallel universe. Over the course of those three decades though, the once-identical worlds drifted apart, and are now very different places. Berlin is the only place where the worlds meet so people can cross over, and diplomatic relations between the two universes are tense.
This is all news to Howard, who is a confused, lowly peon. But, his opposite from the parallel universe (also played by Simmons), is very different. He’s high-level and confident in every way that our Howard isn’t and he’s coming to the other side because he’s worried about a conspiracy that threatens the stability of both Earths.
That sounds pretty high-concept, and to some extent it is, but Counterpart shines because it is utterly unconcerned (at least in the first six episodes Starz released to reviewers) with the logistics of how the parallel universe works. Instead, it’s concerned with the logistics of spycraft and bureaucracy. The other Earth is treated as though it were just a rival country. The no-frills approach to the central gimmick keeps the spy antics grounded, and it’s thrilling to watch Simmons, who is fantastic and distinct in his two almost identical roles, and Game of Thrones’s Harry Lloyd try to uncover the conspiracy in the shadows.
The one place where the show’s sci-fi element comes into play is on an emotional level. Even then, it’s not about the fantasy of parallel worlds but the much more personal fantasy of “what if?” Both Harolds are the same person, or at least they were, up until 30 years ago. Our Harold looks at his counterpart and knows that this confident person could’ve been him if his choices and the winds of fate had been just a little bit different. The other Harold looks at his weaker counterpart with some level of disdain, but can’t help but notice that this Howard and his wife are still together. It’s only human to wonder what could’ve been, and Counterpart takes this truth and makes it poignantly real.
As should be fitting an espionage drama that smartly updates the best of Cold War spycraft, Counterpart’s complex plot is full of thought-out twists and turns. The premiere, a tight, engrossing hour of television, starts small, but within a few episodes, you see that the series’ creators have created not one, but two fully realized worlds. Smartly, they dole that information out as needed, and always in service of the espionage plot or character development rather than just for the sake of the sci-fi gimmick. Counterpart deals with the harsh realities of diplomacy, paranoia, and regret with such intensity that you forget it’s technically a science fiction series, even as J.K. Simmons has another conversation with his parallel universe doppelganger.
Counterpart premieres on Sunday, January 21 at 8 p.m. Eastern on Starz.